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Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Pandemic pause allows famed Door County theater to tell its story, Part 1

Critic At Large

Peninsula Players Theatre

Image for episode.

FISH CREEK, Wis. (WFRV) – An idea rolls to you, and you pick it up. Sometimes it’s perfect, like a ball.

That is what is happening at present with Peninsula Players Theatre.

Shut last summer by the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic, the theater still managed to celebrate its 85th anniversary as “America’s oldest professional resident summer theater” with a special online remembrance in July.

When COVID-19 lingered, the theater took the history ball and ran with it.

The result is a fascinating saga told via the Internet and Zoom and archival photos and newspaper clippings and abundant anecdotes and congenial byplay of the hosts.

Even though they are hundreds of miles apart, Greg Vinkler and Audra Baakari Boyle talk about the theater’s effervescent history like chums over a backyard fence. I exaggerate, but, hey, that’s theater, too.

The hosts. (Screenshot)

Greg Vinkler is the company’s artistic director. Audra Baakari Boyle is business manager and, importantly in this case, archivist/historian. Each has more than 25 years with the theater that presents a varied menu of five plays each June to October.

The beauty of the project is the completed episodes continue to be available at the theater’s website, peninsulaplayers.com. Click on “Peninsula Players Presents,” and the history series is part of an array that starts with interviews with company members.

The history series is like a talking picture book.

At times, what happened with the Peninsula Players – and the series – is phenomenal.

The opening night of the fledgling theater’s first production was reported on in The Capital Times newspaper of Madison.

The “interesting communication.)

The newspaper ran an “interesting communication” from the “summering” Ina Barnes, who attended the premiere with a friend.

“In a sunken garden directly back of Bonnie Brook cottage, Fish Creek, Door County, an interesting venture in the field of dramatic arts is being promoted by leading members of the peninsula colonies,” Ina Barnes’ report starts.

The Noel Coward comedy “Hay Fever” opened Thursday, July 25, 1935.

Among other things, Ina Barnes’ report says:

“The simplicity of the theater in the garden makes a definite appeal from the moment one enters the little white gate to purchase a ticket from the personable young man seated before a rustic table, making change by the light of a brace of tall candles in a quaint brass candelabrum. The feeling of entering a sort of fairyland persists as you thread your way over the white flagstones marking the path through the garden, down the natural amphitheater where chairs are placed before an outdoor stage whose proscenium arches are flanked on either side by wings of natural shrubbery behind which a garden path leads to the guest rooms in Bonnie Brook cottage.

“A floodlight from the cottage which forms one side of the amphitheater discloses an audience all decked out for the occasion in regulation theater attire including sparkling jewels, twinkling eardrops, velvet evening wraps, white flannels, and a generous sprinkling of nautical uniforms of the men who man the many boats which abound in the waters of Green Bay and Lake Michigan.

“When the footlights signal the floodlight to go out and the stars overhead to appear, a satisfied hush indicates that the audience is ready and willing to be entertained and is not going to be too critical of the efforts of this group of players who have come to bring them pleasure in an attitude of sincere and artistic unselfishness…

“Judging from the interest of Thursday night’s audience, one might safely predict this summer season of drama is but the beginning of many more.”

After reading much of the article, Greg Vinkler says, “And that was somewhat prophetic.”

He adds, “I got a little moved there in the middle because this is still what the theater is.”

As on day one, the phrase “theatre in a garden” has been part of the Players identity – and much a part of the landscaping on the campus. The article also mentions variety of play selections, which also is in the template.

Greg Vinkler says, “It’s so wonderful to hear that the history of the place that it was created from the get-go with those ideas.”

The article is phenomenal because it was a fresh find online for Audra Baakari Boyle. Imagine being an archivist/historian coming upon golden material that’s been tucked away for 85 years.

***

Side note: The find came July 19.

“I almost fell out of my chair – and then I squealed in delight,” Audra Baakari Boyle says.

The article likely was previously unknown to the theater.

The theater’s collection of physical scrapbooks and clippings is in the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay library, she says, so Audra Baakari Boyle says she searches online through subscription newspaper archive sites.

My guess is that article is not in any “hard” clippings/scrapbooks, No. 1, because how would anybody at the Peninsula Players known about what a Madison paper ran? and No. 2, the article has never shown up in any of the Peninsula Players anniversary books over the years, and it’s too good to pass up.

“That is all true,” Audra Baakari Boyle says. “It is a gem.”

***

The first episode of the series explores, as Greg Vinkler says, “How the heck someone decided to start a theater in Door County, Wisconsin, in 1935.”

All paths lead to Caroline Fisher and her brother, Richard. She always wanted to start a theater, and he was a playwright. Their parents were all for it and helped in all sorts of ways.

Greg Vinkler says in the series, “From the get-go, Caroline and Richard surrounded themselves with what they considered the best in talent and beauty.”

Background about them is in the first episode. Included are references to Caroline Fisher as a person who saw an idea roll to her, and she picked it up with remarkable gumption.

Caroline Fisher. (Peninsula Players Theatre)

The episode skips ahead to 1937. The opening season, while a popular and an artistic success, lost money. Caroline Fisher spent 1936 in jobs including modeling to raise funds.

Greg Vinkler reads a newspaper article:

“After much persuasion, Caroline Fisher finally accepted a movie contract, but she’s going to quit as soon as she earns enough to pay off the mortgage on her summer theater at Fish Creek, Wisconsin…

Quoting Caroline Fisher in the article: “I understand Wesley Ruggles has selected a role for me,” the 22-year-old actress born in Rogers, Michigan, said today. “It is supposed to be a heavy part, a sort of villainess, but that’s all right with me so long as I get the money. I may sound mercenary, but the only excuse for my presence in Hollywood is to get myself and Peninsula Players at Fish Creek out of the red. Ever since I was a child, I dreamed of having my own theater. Maybe Hollywood can’t understand my ambition, but I do.”

Greg Vinkler says, “So she was clearly driven.”

Saturday: A look at what happened to the Peninsula Players after July 25, 2020, and from 1937 to 1939.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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